Public Perception of Police Misconduct Research Paper

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Public Perceptions of Police Misconduct

Police Misconduct

Public Perceptions of Police Misconduct Divided Along Racial Lines

Public Perceptions of Police Misconduct Divided Along Racial Lines

For anyone paying attention to the news of late, the conduct of the police has been under increasing scrutiny. The news media and the internet world are currently following a number of major stories concerning alleged police misconduct. These stories are as diverse as the New York Police Department (NYPD) warrantless spying on Muslims (Sacirbey, 2012) to the pepper spraying of Occupy protesters on a University of California campus (Newcomb, 2012). This essay will discuss evidence that suggests communities view police misconduct differently along racial and generational lines.

Historical Perspectives

The infamous 'Third Degree' was probably first coined in the 1870s by police officers and was intended to describe the brutal interrogation methods employed to gain information, confessions, and guilty pleas from suspects (Leo and Koenig, 2010, p. 4-14). By the 1920s, newspapers had begun reporting allegations of police brutality on a regular basis, but everyone, from prosecuting attorneys to trial judges, were complicit to varying degrees. The use of brutal interrogation methods became so popularized that the methods were incorporated into plays, motion pictures, and crime novels. Investigations were started by bar associations, civil liberties organizations, and grand juries to no avail. The perception of widespread police misconduct had become so common, that even the mention of coercion in front of a jury could sway the verdict in favor of the defendant.

Finally, with publication of the Wickersham Commission report in 1931, which was titled Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, the resulting public outrage was sufficient that third degree methods faded from use (Leo and Koenig, 2010, p. 12-14). This report revealed widespread, systematic use of third degree methods on a national level. Rather than using the methods to obtain incriminating information from hardened criminals, the methods were used to clear the books of criminal cases through false confessions and guilty pleas, take revenge, and discourage claims of abuse and coercion.

Contemporary Perspectives

Although the widespread use of third degree methods faded after the publication of the Wickersham Commission report in 1931, the police still find it hard to police themselves. This past January, the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to ban torture, the first municipality to do so in the United States (Coffey, 2012). Close to 3,500 signatures had been collected by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Illinois Coalition Against Torture, and other religious organizations to bring this issue up before the city council.

Although the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. run prisons was used in part to justify presenting this issue before the city council, the fact that this took place in Chicago is particularly important. Between 1972 and 1991, the Chicago police officer Jon Burge and fellow officers tortured suspects to gain information, confessions, and guilty pleas (University of Chicago Human Rights Program, 2007). An estimated 135 African-American men, women, and children, one as young as 13 years old, were subjected to electric shocks, suffocation, beatings, burns, and mock executions.

The city government of Chicago reportedly has taken drastic, public steps to interfere with both local and federal investigations into the police torture allegations and the Illinois legislature recently pulled funding from the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (Mills, 2012). The executive director of this commission, David Thomas, stated that support for their efforts appear to be limited to the wrongfully convicted and their families. The torture commission was busy preparing cases for judicial review, so that the wrongfully convicted could be released from prison. In addition, there does not seem to be sufficient public outrage to force prosecuting attorneys to convict the many police officers accused of torturing suspects. The police commander accused of being the torture ringleader is the only one who is currently serving time, but only for a federal charge of perjury (Brown, Ruzich, and Cox, 2010).

Where is the Public Outcry?

Given the apparent public tolerance and indifference towards the existence of a Chicago police torture ring, and the lack of justice for those who were wrongfully convicted, it is hard not to wonder if the public cares about civil and human rights violations committed by the police. Or, maybe mainstream media is not the best place to gauge public opinion? Kies (2011-2012) argues that the proliferation of online video-sharing websites that document police activity represents a civilian press corps engaging in police oversight. Such activity, according Kies, represents an expression of free speech protected under the First Amendment (Kies, 2011-2012, p. 290-296). One of the earliest examples mentioned by Kies is the 1991 video of the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King. What followed that incident was days of devastation as the African-American communities in the city rioted (Ramos, 1992).

David Thomas, the executive director of the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, may have hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the public outcry over police brutality is limited to the constituencies most affected (Mills, 2012). Over 60 people spoke before the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) board of directors concerning the killing of an unarmed and prostate Oscar Grant by a BART police officer (McLaughlin, Martin, Simon, and Simon, 2009). The entire incident was captured on the cell phones of several bystanders and the videos were quickly posted on the internet. The mother of the victim, and African-American, pleaded in vain that there should be no riots. Over 100 arrests were made by the Oakland police department during the ensuing riots.

Citizen journalists also documented the arrests of nearly 700 Occupy Movement protestors October 1, 2011 on the Brooklyn Bridge (Honan, 2012). Motions by the police to get charges of unlawful arrest summarily discharged under qualified immunity were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, which means the lawsuits against the arresting officers can go forward. The Muslim community has been outraged by recent investigative reports detailing warrantless spying on Muslim Americans in New York and New Jersey (Sacirbey, 2012). Attempts by civil rights groups, a congressional representative, and other officials have failed to motivate federal, New York, and New Jersey officials to investigate. As a result, the City of New York is being sued by the organization Muslim Advocates, in order to bring an immediate end to the surveillance activities and to destroy all intelligence gathered so far.

A compilation of those most affected by the NYPD's policy of 'stop-and-frisk' reveal African-Americans and other minorities are suffering disproportionately (NYCLU, 2012). From year to year, between 2003 and 2012, approximately 54% of all those stopped were African-Americans. Based on the U.S. Census for 2010, African-Americans represent just 25.5% of the population in New York City (2012). Mayor Bloomberg recently defended this policy as essential to saving lives (Taylor, 2012), despite statistics showing that 86 to 90% of those stopped are totally innocent of criminal activity (NYCLU, 2012).


Public perceptions of police misconduct seem to depend on which demographic is being queried. Today, these loud voices are originating from members of ethnic and religious minorities, and status quo dissidents. This seems to contrast with the broad-based public outcry against police misconduct 80 years ago with publication of the Wickersham Commission report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement. In a political climate where the War on Terror has created the public perception that torture and other extreme measures are required to ensure public safety, the only voices that seem to be crying foul are those who are directly affected.


Brown, Andrea, Ruzich, Joseph, and Cox, Brian. (2010). Jurors say evidence made Burge's denials hard to believe. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 June 2012 from

Coffey, Sister Benita. (2012 Jan. 25). Chicago's ban on torture should spur others to act too. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 June…[continue]

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